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The Cemetery Belt

Rhona Amon, Newsday

Why does Queens have so many cemeteries? Answers go back to mid-1800s Manhattan

By Rhona Amon | Staff Writer, Newsday

Under cover of darkness the creaking horse-drawn wagons are loaded onto the ferry. Once across the river, they lumber through the sleeping countryside, finally coming to a halt on Queens hillsides where graveyard workers unload their strange cargo -- thousands of skeletons and coffins exhumed from Manhattan churchyards.

By daylight the only sign of the nocturnal operation will be fresh mounds on the hills and meadows that have been converted into burial grounds.

The wagon trains of the dead -- triggered by a law that turned burials into business -- kept rolling from the 1850s until the early 1900s, transporting bodies to western Queens, which became known as the Cemetery Belt. More than 35,000 bodies were transferred to Cypress Hills Cemetery.

Today more than 5 million of the departed, including the famous and the infamous from Mae West to Lucky Luciano -- almost triple the live population of Queens -- are buried in 29 Queens cemeteries -- four Catholic, three Protestant, 14 Jewish and eight nondenominational.

The Queens land rush began in 1847, after the state Legislature passed the Rural Cemetery Act. Before that, burial was mostly in churchyards or on family farms, where servants and slaves were interred beside their masters. The new legislation "commercialized death for the first time," said historian Vincent F. Seyfried of Rockville Centre. It authorized nonprofit corporations to buy land, open cemeteries and sell plots to individuals for money. The law stipulated that no organization could acquire more than 250 acres in one county, but land dealers got around that by buying land straddling two counties. Cypress Hills, two thirds in Queens, one third in Brooklyn, is one of 17 cemeteries that form a sea of headstones along the county line.

By the 1830s, immigration from Ireland and central Europe was already overcrowding Manhattan neighborhoods and land prices were soaring. Manhattan had a population of 202,589; Queens had 9,049 in an area more than four times the size of Manhattan. Church and backyard gravesites were no longer sacrosanct. "Many were sold, tombstones removed and housing placed on top of graves," said Queens historian Jeffrey Gottlieb.

In 1832 and again in 1849 a cholera epidemic swept Manhattan, which was using well water. The many deaths exhausted the graveyards. Many suspected that disease was being washed down from the gravesites into the drinking water. In 1852 the Common Council of New York City (then consisting of only Manhattan) passed a law prohibiting any more burials.

The churches looked to rural Queens. St. Patrick's Cathedral trustees purchased land in Maspeth in 1846, and the first body was interred in Calvary Cemetery in 1848. "By 1852 there were 50 burials a day in Calvary, half of them Irish poor under 7 years of age," Gottlieb reported. By the 1990s there were nearly 3 million graves in Calvary Cemetery.

Cypress Hills was the first nonsectarian cemetery corporation organized in Queens. The land scramble was on. Although most Queens cemeteries were founded by legitimate church groups, land speculators got into the act, buying cheap farmland to turn into profitable burial grounds.

The first Cypress Hills burial in 1848 "made the land tax-exempt," said Kurt T. Kraska of Ridgewood, author of a "History of Cypress Hills Cemetery and Its Permanent Residents." From 1854 to 1856, more than 15,000 bodies were transferred from churchyards in Manhattan and Williamsburg. Wooden coffins had decayed, leaving only skulls and bones to be exhumed. Unidentified bones were buried in mass graves, said Kraska, a City Transit Authority electrician who became fascinated with cemetery history when growing up in the cemetery belt.

When Union Cemetery closed in Brooklyn in 1897, more than 20,000 bodies were moved to Cedar Grove Cemetery in Flushing. "The curious crowd had abundant opportunity to study the contents of the graves," reported the Brooklyn Eagle. The remains were moved at midnight to "prevent the work being turned into a sideshow," Kraska said.

Churchmen pooled their resources to establish bigger and better cemeteries. The Rev. Frederick William Geissenhainer, pastor of St. Paul's German Lutheran Church in Manhattan, bought 225 acres in Middle Village in 1852 for a cemetery to serve Lower East Side immigrants. Members decided to call it the Lutheran Cemetery although it was open to all faiths. It became the final resting place for the 1,021 victims of the excursion boat General Slocum, which burned and sank during a Manhattan Sunday School outing in 1904. Today, it's the All Faiths Cemetery and most of its interments are Italian with some Hispanic, African-American and Jewish, said chief executive officer Daniel Austin.

The 19th-Century Queens communities grew rapidly. Picnicking families would come on the Astoria-Yorkville ferry, which, signs on the terminal proclaimed, was the "shortest route to St. Michaels, Lutheran, Calvary, Cypress Hill, Mt. Olivet and Mt. Zion Cemeteries." Restaurants, saloons and beer gardens flourished. The cemetery is "the principal industry of the people in the vicinity," reported W.W. Munsell's 1882 "History of Queens County."

But tensions developed over "the endless funeral processions that were wearing out the roads. Some roads were not even paved," historian Seyfried said. "Worse, the cemeteries were exempt from taxation."

There were also outcries about the high cost of dying, particularly when Calvary raised its price to $10 per plot. "A whole funeral might cost $10 in Cypress Hills," Seyfried said. Lutheran Cemetery originally charged $2.50 for a burial, $7 for a plot. Bridges, tunnels, subways -- all the construction of a fast-growing city took its toll of churchyards. Graves dislodged by the Williamsburg Bridge were moved to Queens cemeteries.

With the improved access, especially with the completion of the Queensboro Bridge in 1909, thousands of city dwellers moved to the once-isolated Queens communities. "The churches themselves began to follow their congregations to Queens," said Queens County historian Henry Ludder. When the Queensboro Bridge opened in 1909, the Queens population soared, although it never came close to the numbers of dead. Today there are more disinterments than reinterments as families moving to other areas take their departed with them.